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IN BRIEF

Fiction

July 24, 1994|CHRIS GOODRICH

BULLET HEART by Michael Doane (Knopf: $23; 316 pp.). Truth is better captured by fiction, we're often told, than by purely factual accounts; tied not to external events but to feelings and impressions and ineluctable human character, fiction supposedly brings to life what nonfiction paints by number. Well, here's one case where the analogy actually works, for in "Bullet Heart" Michael Doane tells the story of a confrontation between whites and Native Americans to which neither journalism nor scholarship could possibly do justice. The novel takes place in South Dakota in the 1970s, when local developers start the short-lived Bones War while building a golf course on an ancient burial ground. The American Indian Movement is at its height, government authorities feel under constant siege, the U.S. appears on the verge of living up to its ideals or of falling flat on its face; Michael Doane uses this real-life civil strife to illuminate the individual troubles, and principles, such rebelliousness brings to the fore. There are many complex Native American characters in "Bullet Heart"--the reader is reminded of Louise Erdrich's work--but the central figures are Gaetan Avril and Tyrone Little, sympathetic local men labeled "Indian-lovers" by the rest of the white population. The two have many reasons--some mysterious, some not--for their largely unreciprocated friendliness toward the Lakota, the major reason in Avril's case being guilt: his father became rich by exploiting the natives, in one instance even resorting to murder, and the son is determined to make recompense. For all that, though, guilt is not a major factor in this book; indeed, the best thing about "Bullet Heart" is its even-handedness, for Doane neither idealizes Native Americans nor demonizes heedless whites. (It should be noted, however, that the Bones War bears a striking resemblance to the 1975 FBI-AIM battle after which AIM founder Leonard Peltier was convicted of murder, and that in this book the Peltier model is unquestionably innocent.) "Bullet Heart," Doane's fifth novel, may be too thoughtful and too well-written to make headlines, but in its own quiet way it's a literary milestone.

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